A building type of classical and medieval architecture.

The Non-Christian Basilica

In ancient Rome the basilica was a covered, mostly rectangular, public building with entrances usually on the long sides (one of the few exceptions is the famous basilica at Pompei). Frequently, and especially in the older buildings, the outer walls are even opened up into continuous colonnades. These buildings thus lack an external termination in the strict sense.

The division of the interior into multiple aisles seems to have become common at an early date (Vitruvius, De aedificiis 5. 1, 5). Few provincial basilicas were constructed with a single nave. It was not required that the nave should be higher than the side aisles, although examples can be found where this is the case.

One of the requirements of the basilica was that it should be suitable for commercial exchanges and occasional judicial proceedings. From passages in ancient literature that contain references to the function of the basilica (collected by Ohr, 1973, pp. 162ff.), it emerges that it was designed primarily for the more prominent type of business activities. That is, it concerned above all the entrepreneurs and great merchants, whereas retail trade took place in the shops and stalls along the columned streets. To fulfill its function, the basilica had to be spacious and to be located at a central and easily accessible position within the town. In this regard the area around the forum was particularly suitable (Vitruvius, 5. 1, 4).

In its interior, the basilica contained a podium mostly located at one of the end walls for municipal officials, who performed certain notarial functions at the conclusion of contracts and at court decisions.

Because of the great importance of the basilica for ancient commercial activity, a basilica could be found in nearly every Roman municipium. For the most part they were made possible by large endowments from individual citizens, who also spared no expense on their sumptuous furnishings. Famous examples are the Basilica Ulpia in the Forum Traiani in Rome (Macdonald, 1965, pp. 67ff., pl. 74) and the basilica of Septimius Severus at Leptis Magna in North Africa (Apollonj-Ghetti, 1976).

The origins of the basilica are as yet obscure. Even the name (“royal”) is a problem: it derives from Greek, but appears in a form that is not attested in contemporary Greek. The form is Latin and current only in the Latin West in this form. Because Vitruvius— though in a very different context—compares the basilica to so- called Egyptian halls (6. 3, 8-10), attempts have been made to derive it from the hypostyle hall prevalent in pharaonic temple architecture, such halls being in several instances furnished with a raised middle section. But this is unconvincing.

The two have in common only a very small external and even dispensable feature, whereas they do not correspond at all in regard to their general architectural outline function (see Haeny, 1970, pp. 78-80). Generally speaking, one inclines today toward the assumption that the Greek stoa belonged to the forerunners of the Roman basilica. At any rate, it has the same function, and not infrequently goes back to royal endowments. An important link is provided by the five-aisled stoa in the dock quarter of Delos dating from the end of the third century B.C. (Leroux, 1909). This stoa is different from the Roman basilica only in its structural design, in that the Roman basilica had no need for a central row of columns.

The Christian Basilica

The adoption of the term “basilica” for the Christian house of worship is attested quite early. In its ecclesiastical sense, the word is nevertheless not restricted to a particular structural type. It is rather a label of rank, and may refer to a longitudinal-plan building as well as to a central-plan structure. What is important is that it has to do with a large, conspicuous edifice, as a rule, a cathedral. In the history of art and in archaeology the term basilica means a rectangular, longitudinal-plan structure, normally covered by a wooden roof, and subdivided into several aisles (mostly three or five).

Certain North African basilicas exhibit an even larger number of aisles. The breadth of the nave normally exceeds by far that of the side aisles, and it is also considerably loftier, so as to provide room for a row of windows, the clerestory, in the zone of wall above the colonnades on each side, thus clear of the roofs of the side aisles. The roof of the early Christian basilica is, as a rule, a wooden saddleback roof. In some regions where wood was scarce, a barrel- vault roofing has been adopted at an early stage. The roofs of the side aisles are for the most part built as shed roofs, but they may also be constructed as flat roofs—particularly in regions with little rainfall as, for example, in Egypt.

In gallery churches the aisles often possess two floors. Such churches are common in the Eastern countries, and presumably originated mainly from the requirement of keeping the sexes of the believers apart. The necessary stairs are for the most part located at the short sides of the narthex, which in Syria led to the development of a kind of double tower facade. Otherwise, the narthex is a kind of entrance hall, which ordinarily spans the full width of the church and very frequently opens outward into a continuous series of columns. The narthex also occurs in the same form with central-plan edifices.

The ritual center of the basilica, finally, is the sanctuary at the eastern end. It exhibits a variety of designs, in accordance with the various liturgical ordinances in the different parts of the Christian oikoumene (world). In the West and in Asia Minor, the basilica normally ends in a semicircular apse that as a rule protrudes from the otherwise straight east wall as a simple cylinder-shaped and occasionally polygonally encased part of the building. In Egypt and Syria, the apse, from the early fifth century onward, is flanked on both sides by two lateral chambers (so-called pastophorias), designed for subsidiary liturgical functions. The place where the altar stands is usually (apart from some churches of Syria and Palestine) not inside the apse but in front of it, in a section enclosed by low cancelli (presbytery) and in many cases raised above the floor of the nave by at least one step. In terms of spatial architecture, this presbytery actually belongs to the area of the nave.

A special development of the basilica is represented by the transept basilica in which the section of the nave in front of the sanctuary was expanded on both sides. Since the introduction of such a feature to the building was accompanied by a change in the orientation of the beams, and consequently, also, in the ridgeline, it is referred to as a transept. It may have one or more aisles. A pseudo-transept occurs when only the exterior profile of the basilica in front of the apse is extended, while in the interior only the number of aisles in this part is increased, as is the case with the Leonidas Basilica in Lechaion at Corinth and the Old Church at Old Dongola.

Besides these variations in the design of the basilica caused by the geographical position and by different local building traditions, further divergences arise from the distinct evolution of the basilica in each region. In the Greek sphere, as well as in Syria (presumably by way of Constantinople), additional side chapels were required. Here, in the seventh or eighth century, the so-called templon became fully established. This is a higher rising screen the upper zone of which was shut by curtains. Its original function was to separate more emphatically the sanctuary from the part of the church where the laity stayed and to guard the acts performed in the sanctuary from the view of the believers.

A similar development is to be recorded for almost the entire East. On the contrary, in Western architecture the region of the altar remains open and visible. Notable here is the development of the tower facade of the basilica. In the East the multiplication of altars led, furthermore, to a remarkable elaboration of the ritual.

The construction of basilicas came to an end in Eastern architecture at the beginning of the Middle Byzantine period, around the middle of the tenth century. Before that date the basilica had been the most widespread building type, despite the construction of numerous central-plan edifices. In the West the basilica was used almost without interruption until the time of the Renaissance. During this time, it underwent several modifications of style, but nonetheless never lost its specific shape.

The question of the origins of the Christian basilica is also still an obscure one. Attempts have been made to derive it from the pagan market basilica, from the columned streets common in the East Roman Empire, or from the basilica-like throne halls that can be found in some imperial palaces. Occasionally the theory is also advocated that it was preceded by a hypaethral type of building, the so-called basilica discoperta, which was thought to be attested in Salona (Dyggve, 1940, pp. 415-31).

All these hypotheses face as many objections. Moreover, they all share the same error of seeking to establish a single type of building as the model of the Christian basilica. Today the view begins to gain renewed acceptance that the furnishing of the Christian basilica with several aisles should be regarded as simply a method of enlarging the covered space when the need for increased space arose. Some pagan places of worship were constructed with three aisles as well, like the Baccheion in Athens and the “Sacellum delle tre navate” in Ostia Antica, which was probably a Mithraeum. The Jewish communities designed their houses of worship (synagogues) with three aisles at about the same time as the Christians.

In other respects, the Christian house of worship was shaped according to the pattern commonly used at the period for assembly buildings: a rectangular room equipped for the performance of the religious ceremonies, with a section at one of the end walls. Also, the word “basilica” seems not to have referred initially to a particular structural type but to the Christian church as such. According to the suggestive conjecture of A. von Gerkan (1953, pp. 129ff.), the name derives from the usage of the early church before the official acknowledgment of the Christian religion, when the liturgy was still celebrated in the most prominent room of a private house. This room likewise bore the name basilica (Vituvius, De aedificiis 6. 3, 8-10), and the name may have been taken over from here.

The Christian Basilica in Egypt

Compared with the general shape of the basilica, the Egyptian basilica exhibits certain peculiarities. Here, as in Syria, a sanctuary with several rooms and a straight wall toward the east is well established at an early date. There existed a predilection, particularly in Upper Egypt, for furnishing the apse with several niches and an inner circle of columns. Furthermore, in a considerable number of cases, the apse has been replaced by a triconch.

The lateral rooms in these cases received an angular shape. Moreover, an additional row of columns was set up in front of the entrance to the triconch, which for structural reasons was relatively narrow, so as to enrich the interior aspect of the eastern end of the nave. Subsequently this was adopted for churches with a simple semicircular apse as well, whenever the apse happened to be particularly narrow (Grossmann, 1973, pp. 167ff.). As regards the subdivision of the naos, the Egyptian basilica contains certain peculiarities in the design of the western section. Whereas in the rest of the Christian world the side aisles continue as far as the west end of the basilica, in Egypt, they are, with few exceptions (ABU MINA), connected by a transverse section of the same design as these, the so-called return aisle.

The aisles thereby acquire the appearance of an ambulatory going around three sides. The origin of the return aisle is probably to be sought in the demands created by the gallery church. Above the return aisle was a kind of bridge that connected the galleries of both sides, so that only a single staircase was required. Subsequently, however, the return aisle could also be found in churches that surely were not furnished with galleries. For the location of the gallery staircase, there is no fixed rule. It is frequently built as an external addition at the southwest corner of the basilica.

The walls of the Egyptian basilica—with the exception of some edifices in Lower Egypt—are provided with numerous niches. They are the cause of the often remarkably strong walls of Egyptian basilicas and should, it seems, be considered a peculiarity of mud-brick construction. An atrium occurs only rarely in Egyptian basilicas. Nevertheless, there are exceptions to this in Abu Mina and al-Ashmunayn. In the early medieval period, that is, during the time following the Arab conquest, the Egyptian basilica at first changed very little. The edifices, nevertheless, became smaller and more modest in their design.

In addition, in the seventh century, a special transverse wall was inserted between the sanctuary and the nave, serving a function similar to that of the templon, and out of this the iconostasis developed in the Greek church. Unlike these, however, the transverse wall is constructed to reach the ceiling of the basilica. At first, it produced a small transverse passage in front of the sanctuary; later this passage widened out into a full room, the khurus. Since the apse opening itself, on the other hand, kept its traditional form as an arch spanning its full width, the architectural opportunity presented itself to combine both rooms into the overriding form of the triconch, whereby a familiar idea from early Christian architecture came to be reapplied.

A further change of the Egyptian basilica took place with the introduction of vault constructions during the Fatimid period, by a development parallel to that which occurred in Islamic architecture. In Upper Egypt, the preference was to place two domes one behind the other as roofing of the nave. This subsequently led to the gradual abandonment of the basilica because the two domes were structurally incompatible with its basic design. In Lower Egypt, on the other hand, the basilica was covered with a continuous barrel vault. This did not interfere with the longitudinal design of the basilica; thus it retained its characteristic shape even into the Mamluk period.

[See also: Architectural Elements of Churches.]


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